Token ’bout a revolution: SNL practices affirmative inaction
This was the first week for performer Sasheer Zamata, who had been hired recently in response to a chorus of complaints over the persistent absence of African-American females from the show’s cast. In her first episode, Zamata appeared in five sketches, which on its face would be pretty good for a featured player. But in every instance that Zamata was brought up to the plate, she was denied the chance to swing. Her grand total for the night was no more than six lines of dialogue, almost none of them laugh lines. In one pretaped bit, she was a backup vocalist singing the same two words over and over while the other performers did the real work. The most egregious segment was a roundup of hip-hop impersonations in which Zamata’s Rihanna didn’t get to utter or sing a single syllable – just do the infamous crotch-patting dance for a few brief seconds. Did nobody on the program’s staff spot the bitter irony in hauling out Zamata to portray one of the most infamously victimized black women in popular culture, then forbidding both of them to speak?
For the final insult, just before the end credits rolled, guest host Drake appeared center stage with Zamata, put his arm around her and reminded the audience that it had been her first show – treatment no new performer ever gets. A viewer who hadn’t been following the hiring story would have wondered what the big deal was. And then maybe assumed it was some sort of black thing.
Which, to some people, it obviously had been. Lorne Michaels had spent the previous 90 minutes essentially telling the black women of America, “Remember, you’re only here because you made a fuss. Now stay out of the way while the people who deserve their jobs save the show.”
Spectacles like this are symptomatic of the fear and misunderstanding with which diversity initiatives are met by many Americans. They decry such initiatives as constituting “special” treatment, when the people who benefit them have already been rendered special by their traditional underrepresentation in the corridors of power. And when the affirmative-action hire is brought aboard, she has to deal from Day One with the perception that she isn’t there because of her true merit – an impression that’s furthered if she receives less responsibility than is the norm while being paraded around like an example of something or other. The result is that her presence is received as awkward and unnatural, when what’s really awkward and unnatural is the void that preceded it.
All of which is what Zamata had to endure last night. Time will tell if she’s able to escape the stigma of an affirmative-action cast member. In the meantime, we should also try to learn more about LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, two black female writers who recently joined SNL. It’s well known that, at the show, performers can only get on the air by either writing their own material (unpaid, of course) or forging a bond with one or more members of the writing staff. The latter gambit has reportedly been very difficult for actors who don’t share the background and outlook of a writing bullpen that has been even whiter and more male than the performing lineup. Obviously, Zamata’s fortunes on the program depend to a certain degree on the material Tookes and Jones can come up with for her.
But I’m also interested in the words they’ll be putting in the mouths of others. When they were hired, I saw someone on social media express relief that Zamata would now have two sympathetic writers – whereupon another commenter expressed hope that they’d be writing for the rest of the cast, too. One of the natural effects of the near-monopoly white men hold on cultural representation is that, when we give anyone else the opportunity to speak, we assume that they’ll use that time to describe their own experience. Yet describing your experience is not limited to describing yourself. A nonwhite and/or nonmale performer will have plenty to say about the world the rest of us have made, which is both eminently logical and frequently scares the shit out of us.
It shouldn’t. It’s essential feedback that keeps us honest and helps us grow. Without it, everything the dominant demographic knows about itself comes from itself. Lord help a culture that’s based on the autobiography of the empowered. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tookes and Jones make of Michelle Obama and Nicki Minaj – but I’m just as interested in getting their take on Edward Snowden and Joaquin Phoenix.
To cite another SNL touchstone, I doubt Eddie Murphy would have been half as effective a comedian had he been limited to personae like Velvet Jones and James Brown. It was in portraying characters like Gumby – a Gumby whom Murphy did not recode as “black” in any way, shape or form – that he brought down racial barriers in a way that still goes unappreciated. For an entire nation of viewers, having Murphy teach us that black people had grown up on largely the same garbage entertainment as everybody else was a profoundly enlightening experience.
I have no doubt that Tookes, Jones and Zamata could make a genuine contribution to that conversation. The first step will be getting their voices genuinely heard; the next will be to make sure they get to talk about whatever they want to. A nation that, this Sunday, is still asking itself “Who is Sasheer Zamata?” needs to know that the answer just might be “I am everybody, dammit.”
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